Skip to main content

By now you will be familiar with the story. London’s air quality is both illegal and lethal. Not only does it continue to breach EU legal limits, it’s much worse than the standards called for by the World Health Organisation. The equivalent of over 9,000 Londoners die prematurely every year from simply breathing. Doctors are becoming unprecedentedly vocal about the serious, irreversible long-term impacts to the health and development of London’s children. It’s a situation that has been tolerated for too long.

Politicians of all stripes have finally agreed that this cannot be allowed to continue, and the Mayor of London has promised to reduce air pollution, consulting on a raft of important measures to get a grip on this crisis. But we shouldn’t underestimate how radical the programme to clean up London’s air will need to be: only action commensurate with the scale of the problem will do and the Mayor’s current proposals, creditable as they are, still have some way to go.

The policies on the table largely focus on a new charging regime to penalise dirty cars, taxis, private hire vehicles, coaches, and heavy goods vehicles, as well as renewing London’s bus fleet with cleaner models and investing in localised pollution abatement. But of themselves they won’t be enough. For example, a large proportion of particulate emissions arises from road, tyre and brake wear: this alone indicates that switching away from current volumes and patterns of motor vehicle use will be as important as tackling tailpipe emissions.

This is all part of a broader piece. London’s surface transport system needs to meet multiple objectives, such as keeping London’s growing population moving, delivering goods and services efficiently, reducing pollution and carbon emissions and achieving zero road fatalities and serious injuries. Improving our streetscape and how our roads are used also has a pivotal role in making the capital an even more vibrant, attractive, productive and world-class place in which to live, work and play.

Yet the current configuration won’t cut it, and profound change is required: walking and cycling must be allowed to flourish as the principal modes for everyday journeys; access to a car must be encouraged over car ownership; smarter delivery of goods and services must be incentivised; “multi-modal” journeys must be made easier and affordable; the bus network must be reorganised – the list goes on. Whatever the future system of surface transport looks like, if it’s going to be up to the job, then it won’t look like it does today.

But returning to pollution, we must at the same time acknowledge that preventing loss of life and lifelong debilitation will be costly and disruptive. If people and companies with dirty vehicles are to be penalised then the money raised must be invested in cleaner, alternative travel options – from new cycling facilities to green electricity infrastructure for vehicle charging. It will also be unjust not to provide support for those hard hit, e.g. for small scale operators least able to convert or replace their vehicles.

So far as cycling itself is concerned, let me give some specific examples of the kind of facilitation required for it flourish: giving road space over to physically-protected cycle tracks (not just blue paint) installed on the busiest routes; so-called modal filtering schemes that allow local access but block through traffic in residential areas and town centres; a 20 mph speed limit as the general rule (a proven lifesaver for pedestrians also); making “direct vision” lorries – the safest type available on the market – the norm on London’s streets; and basing housing developments around cycling, public transport and car-sharing. There is also enormous scope to open up the business-by-bike market with the recent arrival of increasingly affordable and reliable electrically-assisted cargo bikes: these are already being used by carriers such as DHL and UPS and are perfect for last-mile delivery within freight consolidation systems (indeed “e-bikes” also at a stroke make longer commutes more achievable and enjoyable by cycle). Little of this will happen organically, however, and capitalising on the enormous potential of cycling to reduce congestion, pollution and travel costs will require concerted action by the Mayor, TfL, the boroughs and business.

A new, enlightened approach to transport, together with innovation and improving technology, is dragging our city out of twentieth-century thinking. But a genuine mobility renaissance will only be possible if it carries Londoners with it. That’s why it is so encouraging that consensus is building across politicians, transport authorities, businesses, health specialists and so on to get the right policies in place, and to engage the public in them. Unlocking the multiple benefits of making London a cycling city must necessarily be at the heart of that conversation.

Ashok Sinha is CEO of London Cycling Campaign

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily of Bright Blue.